From Ritual to Reconciliation:

True Peace Depends on Acknowledging Justice in the Palestinian Cause


The Washington Post, September 19, 1993


The enormity of recent events in the Middle East comes not from the substance of the accord that was reached, but from the fact of mutual recogni­tion between the state of Israel and the PLO. The exchange of letters of recognition, the agreement of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yassir Arafat to a face-to-face encounter, the handshake on the White House lawn, were symbolic interactions, possessing elements of a reconciliation ritual.

            Mutual recognition was possible five years ago, when Arafat met the stated conditions for opening the U.S.-PLO dialogue. At that time the PLO renounced terrorism, accepted U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338 and acknowledged Israel’s right to “exist in peace and security.” A few days ago, in his letter of recognition to Rabin, Arafat repeated these three commit­ments and added further that the PLO will oppose all acts of violence, will work to resolve all permanent status issues through negotia­tions and will seek the necessary changes in the Palestinian Covenant.

            But the real difference between then and now lies not in what the PLO pledged. It is that this time there was mutuality—an Israeli partner that said in turn that “the government of Israel has decided to recognize the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people.” What made this possible was the change in Israel’s security situation resulting from the demise of the Soviet Union, the defeat of Iraq in the Gulf War, the recognition of the danger that radical fundamentalist forces would sup­plant the PLO and, of course, the election of a Labor government in Israel.

            Viewed as a symbolic reconciliation, the ritual we witnessed remains incomplete. Rec­onciliation rituals take different forms across cultural traditions. The most straightforward occurs when there is agreement on who has been wronged and who did the wrongdoing. Then there can be the public enactment of apology, an offer of restitution and public for­giveness expressed through an act such as the taking of a meal in the home of the wrongdoer. Such moral consensus and cleansing has, of course, not been achieved. And the long con­flict between Jews and Palestinians in the Mid­dle East has sufficient moral complexity that something of this sort is indeed impossible.

            When moral consensus is not possible, rec­ognition of the moral integrity of the other can substitute. Parties can reconcile with an awareness that the other has a point of view and a mutual recognition that it is possible that decent people would see and understand the world from that point of view. But nothing of this sort has yet been achieved. Israelis and Palestinians retain, relatively intact, their own understanding of the conflict and unchanged perception of the conduct of the other.

            What is so hard for most Jews, especially American Jews, to understand is that from the Palestinian point of view, the morality of the conflict is relatively simple-the land was theirs, the Jews seeking to escape harms done them by Christian Europe gained the blessing of the ruling imperialist states to come and take from the Palestinians what was theirs. The Palestinians fought back.



On this level, there has been neither sig­nificant change in Palestinian thinking, nor in Jewish recognition of the fact that it was natural and understandable that Palestinians would see the conflict in these terms.

            Occasionally, but very rarely, one can hear Palestinian or Arab voices that break with this consensus. King Hassan of Morocco has said that the Jews have always lived in the Middle East and just as there always was a Jewish quarter within Arab communities, it is fitting that there be a Jewish state within the larger array of Middle Eastern states. And it is not unknown for a Palestinian to say, “We of all people should have welcomed our Jewish cous­ins back to the land given what they had suf­fered.” But these are isolated expressions.

            On the Israeli side, at least among scholars, there has been over the years a very deep re­thinking of the history of the conflict. Certainly the self-serving mythology of “a land without a people, for a people without a land” has been swept away. But only on the far left do Israelis acknowledge that, even if ultimately necessary and justifiable, the basic Zionist enterprise in­volved an injustice to the indigenous people.

            Typically in international relations, peace does not require that adversaries agree on who was right and wrong, nor if sum agreement is not forthcoming, must they share a sense of the moral complexity of their struggle. But the Jew­ish-Palestinian conflict is rather different. These two peoples will continue to live intermingled with each other regardless of citizenship. Jeru­salem is a city of dual nationality. Palestinian citizens of Israel constitute a significant part of the population, and Jewish settlers may continue to live in the West Bank even when it becomes a Palestinian state.

            The basic fact about this conflict and about the peace that may emerge, is that the Pales­tinians have lost their struggle to prevent the taking of a land that they experienced as their own. For the Jewish people that long struggle has been a great success—the return to the land of ancient ancestors, the re-attainment of Jewish statehood after nearly 2,000 years of statelessness, the achievement of a prosperous and democratic society, For the Palestinians, the triumphs of the Jewish people have, thus far, been at their expense.

            A great deal of what has always appeared to the outside world as the irrationality of the PLO is perhaps better understood as an effort to bear this asymmetry of outcome and power without loss of dignity. This quest for dignity lies at the heart of the Palestinian demand for independent statehood, and it would be foolish to believe that the conflict has any chance of being ended if this is not forthcoming in the next few years.

            But I would argue, that something more is needed, some change in the way the victors, the Jewish people, understand what has happened. There are many voices today saying that it is a mistake to re-open the past, and that what is needed is to look forward, to draw the next gen­eration into peace on the basis of prosperity. And certainly economic development is impor­tant. Yet in the end it will not be adequate.

            To turn away from history is to turn away from countless loved ones and ancestors w ho have died and suffered over the decades. To build peace solely on the basis of pragmatism and self-advantage, is to carry the attitudes of a throw-away society into our human connected­ness. What is needed is something more, some­thing based on our capacities for reflection and self-criticism and human understanding. It is needed by Jews as well as Palestinians, and in the end, it will be needed for lasting peace